The Photographer Documenting Joy in the Undocumented Community

Narratively’s photo editor, Yunuen Bonaparte, on realizing her passion for photography, and channeling that passion into her inspiring new project.

The Photographer Documenting Joy in the Undocumented Community

The first photo Yunuen Bonaparte ever developed was of a palm tree in her home state of California. She was at the bottom of the tree, angling the camera upwards. “That’s a different perspective,” was the reaction of her photography professor. Yunuen says it was like magic, seeing her photo appear in the darkroom, realizing, “Oh my God, I did this, my hands are involved in this, I created this.” 

From that palm tree to today, Yunuen’s photography has been published by The Washington Post, The Hechinger Report, The Guardian and more. She’s Narratively’s photo editor, and most recently, she’s the photographer behind “Documenting joy in the immigrant community in the borderlands,” an ambitious project that tells the stories of undocumented immigrants in California’s Coachella Valley. We sat down with Yunuen to talk about her new project, her own experience growing up undocumented, her family’s reaction to her work and her advice for aspiring photographers. 

This project is so beautiful. Tell me about where the idea came from.

My work by default has always fallen into my communities, focusing on either women or immigrant families. For this specific project, it started to form in my head during the pandemic, because I had just moved from Los Angeles and I was away from home for the first time ever. Then in 2021, this opportunity came about to get stories from the border towns. The Ford Foundation teamed up with the National Association of Hispanic Journalists and a few other organizations to fund a new project called Reclaiming the Border Narrative. I applied to tell stories of the folks in the Coachella Valley area. The idea is that undocumented folks experience a lot of joy. We always talk about our misfortune and everything that’s wrong with being undocumented, but we are still here, we are still resilient, and we keep working even though it sometimes feels impossible. 

My thought process was, “How are those folks doing? What is keeping them going?” And always the default for me is joy. There’s something about our culture that is joyful. And that’s what keeps our resiliency going. So I started to put the pieces together. And when looking at other people’s work within the immigrant community, it is always about labor. It’s always about them crying. I wanted to do something different. I wanted to focus on the joy outside of the labor, outside of the sad story. 

Natalie wearing a traditional Purépecha dress from her home state in México, Michoacán.

How did you get started in photography?

I’ve always known that I’m undocumented, so I never had dreams of having a career. To me, it was mainly just: What can pay the bills? I started working at McDonald’s when I was 16 years old, and graduated from high school with a 4.28 GPA. Most of my teachers were like, “You have to go to college.” And I was like, “Well, how?” Because at that time, it was 2007, and it was really difficult because I couldn’t get financial aid, and I couldn’t get loans. 

I enrolled at Mt. San Antonio College, and paid out of pocket from my job at McDonald’s. My first class ever was photography, and I fell in love with it. I thought it was almost like magic, seeing my first film develop, being in the darkroom and developing by hand. I wanted to do it forever.

And then in 2012, we got the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which meant that I could get financial aid for college. I loved photography, and I wanted my work to be meaningful. So I enrolled to do photo communications at Cal State Fullerton. After that, one opportunity led me to another. But it always comes back to the love I have of storytelling and representing my community. 

What did your parents think when you told them you wanted to pursue photography?

I remember a vivid conversation with my dad. I told him I wanted to quit McDonald’s to work at the photo studio, and he got really mad. That’s not the kind of thing that we people do. And I said, “Well, this is what makes me happy.” He said, “Whoever told you that you’re supposed to do what makes you happy? You’re supposed to do what pays the rent.” 

I don’t blame him; he had his own reasons. He was raised in a completely different location; he’s Mexican. And for him to see his daughter do something that is so out of the ordinary, he struggles with that. But, yeah, that pissed me off, but for some reason, it propelled me to be like, “OK, now I have to do this. I have to actually make this work. Because I’m going to show him I can do whatever I want and still pay the bills.” Now he’s very happy; I know that he’s proud.

I also know that he’s proud of me for doing this kind of imagery of my community. I think he likes that I’m still in touch with my community and my roots.

What is your advice for aspiring photographers and journalists, especially those within the undocumented community?

I think what helped me the most was just to stick with what I knew — turning the lens onto the community that I felt was often misunderstood. I hated hearing some photographers say, “Oh, I want to give the voice to the voiceless.” Like, that’s not a thing. People have voices, you just don’t hear them.

It’s really hard for people to make a living out of passion. But it makes it easy to really laser focus and bring stories out that otherwise wouldn’t have been told. An outsider can show up and try to take photographs and whatnot, but it’s not gonna be the same when someone who has been there tells us those stories. For this project, I didn’t have a lot of ambition, like getting it published anywhere. I just really wanted to do something that somebody would look at and say, “That’s me, somebody created this for me, somebody sees me,” you know?

Maria Isabel holding a hand-stitched Virgin Mary flag she made while she was sick with COVID.

What’s something people get wrong about those who are undocumented?

I feel like a lot of times when people look at undocumented folks, they always see them as their labor. What is the first thing that comes to mind when you say undocumented? A guy with a hat, working in a field? A maid working? They don’t see us as just part of the community. We go shopping, we party, just like anybody. We do things that make us happy outside of work. We find relief in religion and music and family and pets and all that good stuff. And a lot of times people just see us as what we can provide. I don’t think anybody else is seen like that. 

That’s the biggest misconception — that we’re just working people, crying people, that we have sad stories. We need to see everybody — not just immigrants — as people, because we’re your neighbors. We’re people that deserve love, people that deserve to be treated fairly and deserve just as much as you do. 

Ready to experience some undocumented joy? Check out Yunuen’s full project here!

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.